By Tom Holehan
Three high school misfits join forces in “Speech & Debate”, the dark comedy by Steve Karam currently on the boards at Hartford TheaterWorks.  This is just the kind of contemporary, off-Broadway offering that TheaterWorks excels at and, under the able direction of Henry Wishcamper – whose wonderful production of “The Seafarer” was a highlight at the theatre last December; “Speech & Debate” will no doubt entertain and delight a full house of eager audiences throughout its run.

Mr. Karam’s ear for the way teenagers talk and insight into the way they maneuver in an adult world is his major achievement here.  “Speech & Debate” features three extremely well-drawn characters in the form of frumpy wannabe actress Diwata (Jee Young Han), openly gay outsider Howie (Carl Holder) and nerdy, would-be reporter Solomon (Ben Diskant).  The teens all meet – more or less – online and one of the issues that Mr. Karam’s witty and wise script makes immediately clear is the myth of online anonymity.  “You read my blog?”, wails Diwata at one point, “That’s my private journal!”.

The kids all have sexual secrets they are keeping but also share a target: one of their male teachers has been approaching young boys online and Solomon, who pictures himself the next Carl Bernstein, enlists the help of Diwata and Howie into breaking the story.  Diwata and Howie have their own agenda, of course, and part of the fun of “Speech & Debate” is the way the teens’ friendship of necessity is never sentimentalized and that each, ultimately, have a desire to be noticed and heard.

The cast at TheaterWorks is generally fine with Ms. Han (making an impressive professional stage debut) stealing every scene she’s in as a Broadway diva-in-training.  Try to contain yourself as Han manages to extol the virtues of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and the Broadway musical “Wicked” in the same sentence. She’s also hilarious delivering her nightly podcasts or rewriting “The Crucible” as a musical with her playing Mary Warren hooking up with a teenage Abe Lincoln.  Don’t ask.

But one drawback with the casting – and it’s not an insignificant one – is that none of these mature performers ever make us believe they could currently be enrolled in high school.  It would be nice to see a production with age-appropriate actors and at TheaterWorks the cast often forces the issue with broad gestures – playing at their younger selves instead of relaxing into the roles.

Still what does work in “Speech & Debate” works very well indeed.  Mr. Holder channels      Richard Simmons for his comfortably gay Howie while masking a deep insecurity for a young man ultimately looking for acceptance.  Mr. Diskant’s initially aggressive Solomon has the most complicated character arc but handles the changes with ease and efficiency.  Eva Kaminsky is also effective (and age appropriate) in two small roles as a frustrated high school teacher and an ambitious reporter.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella's vivid blue-on-blue setting transforms into several creative playing areas and Bart Fasbender’s sound design captures the mood and youth centric attitude with rare perception.  So, of course, does Mr. Karam’s winning script.  I look forward to his next effort.

“Speech & Debate” continues at Hartford TheaterWorks through July 26.   For further information and tickets reservations call 860.527.7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.

            Note to Management:  Will a TheaterWorks production ever start on time?  We love you guys, truly, but the endless curtain speeches HAVE to stop!

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website and blog: www.ctcritics.org.
This review originally appeared in the Elm City Newspapers.

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